Thursday, 16 February 2017
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:40): I rise to speak on the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. The gold pass is a 99-year saga. It was 1918 when the scheme was first adopted. For decades and decades it rolled on probably because the public did not know about it, did not know how it worked. In the past couple of decades, the public have the become increasingly aware, increasingly concerned with MPs making decisions about their own allowances and about them voting on what they should be. The gold pass, the very name, sounds elitist. The very name smacks that we are out of touch. Really, what is happening here today is a victory for public opinion. We now have this legislation before us because it has become untenable for any party to keep saying: let's keep this bit of the gold pass; let's keep that bit—there is one little bit that is still being kept, and I will come back to it.
As I said, 99 years it has been rolling on and it is worth recapping how it has played out in the last 18 years or so because it is informative of this place and informative of why there is such deep cynicism amongst the public about how politicians work. I am very proud of how the Greens have handled this but, I acknowledge, this damages all politicians and the very institution of our parliament. Since 2002, we have seen responses to growing public concern about the scheme. In 2002 the reach of the gold pass was reduced to limit retired MPs to 25 return flights a year. In 2012, it was reduced again to 10 return flights. But interestingly, the Gillard government was in office at that time and they decided in that year to wind the whole scheme back to apply to MPs who retired after 2012. Why were the changes being made? Because the scandals kept breaking. I will make that point in the debate about the gold pass bill and in the next piece of legislation to be considered about setting up an authority.
Tragically, the history of parliamentary allowances is one of scandals. Periodically, the scandals break and the three pieces of legislation that we are considering are not going to stop that. We still need to go further. We still only have half measures—even though the Greens welcome them, have supported them and have called for them for a long time.
We are up to 2012, when the Gillard government was calling for the whole scheme to be wound up for MPs who retired after 2012. The 2013 election came along, the Gillard government was out and the Abbott government was in. We then had the 2014 budget. In that notorious budget that would have done so much damage to Australia, and certainly done damage to the coalition, was actually a commitment to further reduce the gold pass to all former members except prime ministers, which is what we have now. What we are dealing with now comes from the 2014-15 budget more than 2½ years, nearly three years ago.
What then becomes interesting is that the coalition government failed to act on it. It did not take the legislation through both houses, despite having the cross-party support that would have ensured the passage of the legislation. Clearly, there is an understanding in some quarters of parliament that this is just not good enough. It has to change. I imagine there are MPs in all parties who honestly believe that this has to change. Some of them would have been reacting to public opinion. It gets to the point of recognising legislation is needed, and legislation is moved, but the government does not do what it could have done and had the numbers to do: move it through both houses.
Then Mr Turnbull comes in; he becomes Prime Minister. He then apparently commits to it, but drags the chain. We had that situation that some of you might remember last year, where firstly the responsible minister, Minister Scott Ryan, promised that the bill will be introduced before Christmas. But then, lo and behold, Prime Minister Turnbull said that we are too busy. Remember that time? Senators would have to remember that period last year, when it was like the coalition were treading water because they did not have enough legislation before the parliament. It is a situation that happens now and again. They were waiting for key bills to come from the House of Representatives. Clearly, there was time. We can always make time, particularly for something as important as this. It did not happen.
Now, it is happening. Why is it happening? Over the Christmas period, again, there were more scandals. There were more scandals, this time involving a government minister, the health minister. It involved trips to investment properties and all sorts of things. We can relive all of those others scandals that have occurred. I will not go through all of them now—I will do that when I speak on the next legislation—but there have been some really unsavoury ones involving weddings, trips to polo matches and trips to buy investment properties, where people used their travel allowances to help to do it. The scandals put the focus back on how the system works.
Particularly, the stand-out, very obvious one—the legislation was sitting there—is this gold pass. The good news is that the government has decided to bring the legislation through, but do they still really want the gold pass to be alive for 100 years or up to 99 years? Now is the time to end it completely. That is why the Greens are moving amendments that would remove Prime Ministers from getting the gold pass. That is the whole box and dice that should happen here. It should end now, otherwise the government is going to come to regret it. There is no justification for keeping this going. That is the Greens approach: the gold pass should now be put in the dustbin of history. I would say that that would be a small step to restoring public confidence in how MPs undertake their work. It would be an achievement.
It is an issue that we have given considerable attention to. I know a number of other senators have given attention to it over time. It looks like we are all on the same page with what is before us, but we need to go further. Again, let us remember what has accompanied those many scandals involving MPs misusing their allowances is that the government of the day then calls an inquiry. All those inquiries have made recommendations about the very issue that we are dealing with and how long it has taken. The gold pass has been around for 99 years and many people have benefited. It now does not have the confidence of the public, it is not needed and it brings discredit to us all. It should be wound up and it should be wound up completely.